Untouchable to unstoppable — two classmates in India are changing their fate

 Shree (left) and Vaishali (right) at their school in India. (Courtesy of  She’s the First )

Shree (left) and Vaishali (right) at their school in India. (Courtesy of She’s the First)

For teenagers Shree and Vaishali, being in school means escaping a future determined for them at birth.

16-year-old Shree hopes to be a business woman and professional soccer player. 17-year-old Vaishali is deciding between becoming a doctor and a mechanical engineer. The friends have high hopes for their futures — but this wasn’t always the case.

Shree and Vaishali belong to India’s Dalit caste — a marginalised community deemed impure and untouchable by the Hindu system of social hierarchy. For generations, this system forced Dalit communities to work menial jobs and avoid any physical contact with people of higher ranking castes.

Today, the rules are less rigid. Shree and Vaishali’s parents are able to work as tea sellers, tailors and shopkeepers. But girls in their communities are still not free — or equipped — to choose careers for themselves.

“Like most girls, I wouldn’t have had the money to pay for a government school, I would have worked to support my family instead and soon I would have been married off,” Vaishali says of her life if she had not received a scholarship to attend Shanti Bhavan, a free boarding school in southern India. The school admits talented students from low-income households and recruited Vaishali and Shree when they were 4 years old.

At Shanti Bhavan where the caste system doesn’t matter, the girls excel as students, public speakers and athletes. But their home communities aren’t always receptive to Vaishali and Shree’s ambitions.

During their lunch break, I spoke with Shree and Vaishali about school, their goals and the difficulty of balancing two worlds.

Bhumika (B): Tell me a little about yourselves and your families.

Vaishali (V): I’m in 12th grade. I study biology, because I want to be a doctor when I grow up or maybe even a mechanical engineer. I enjoy playing soccer, dancing and watching cool action movies and comedies. My father works in a tea stall and my mum is a tailor. I have two brothers, who are both in school.

Shree (S): I’ve chosen the business stream — I want to do something with computers. But I also want to be a professional soccer player. I want to try out for state level first then national. That’s the way I can influence other women to be athletic. Most people think soccer is for boys — but girls can play sports too. Like Vaishali, I’m in 12th grade. In my family, I have my mother and older sister. My mother works in a jewelry shop. Her salary is divided between rent, house expenses and my sister’s school. I don’t get to spend much time with them because I am here and when I’m home, my mother leaves early for work and comes back late.

B: How has your education been different from your siblings’?

V: We start every school day at morning assembly, where students read news articles from around the world and discuss the issues at hand. This is how we practice critical thinking and learn about the world outside. It’s something our siblings back home have never gotten to do.

S: We’re taught extra curricular activities. It’s very important for when we have to move on from school, get jobs. We learn a lot about being well rounded. Our siblings don’t have that in their schools. For example, my sister has been studying in a government school but she hasn’t been given the opportunity to take part in sports because people think that’s just for boys.

B: How has your education affected your relationship with your community?

S: Girls in my village don’t pursue careers. People think that once a girl gets married, her husband will work and support her, so they don’t feel the need to educate her if she’s just going to stay at home. And so it’s hard for my goals to be accepted in my village.

V: They’re not always accepting of the girls we’ve become. We express our thoughts and that makes us stand out. In my village, girls are restricted to their homes. There I’m taught to speak in a certain way or behave a certain way and that's not who I am anymore. A lot of people in my family don’t like that I voice my opinions. But still whenever I can, I try to teach them what I learn in school.

B: What changes have your seen within your families since you began Shanti Bhavan? Are they supportive of your dreams?

S: When I go back home, I tutor my sister and help her with her exams. I also help my mom keep checks and balances on her finances. I’ve been trying to create change in my family because I believe that’s the way to bring larger change in my community. My mother now wants my sister and I to go to medical school. She is even saving up for it.

V: My family has been supportive. They know I’m the only one who can break the cycle of poverty. They can’t expect the same from my brothers because the education I’ve received is very different from theirs. My parents look up at me as their only hope.

B: What does being Dalit mean to you?

V: In school, we don’t talk about caste. But outside it is still relevant to us. We’re considered untouchable. We’re not supposed to interact with other castes. In school, we’re friends with everyone and it doesn’t matter where we come from. We just focus on studies and what we want to do.

B: Who inspires you?

S: My friends and teachers inspire me every single day. There are days when I feel demotivated, nervous or worried and they cheer me up and help me to keep going. I get good sleep knowing there are people cheering for me.

B: Do you have fears about your future and the lives you want to lead?

S: Yes. I think about whether I’ll be able to live up to my parents’ expectations.

V: The fear of failing. But I realize that it’s not always going to be about family. You have to think of yourself and your happiness too. I just know if I try my best, nothing will stop me.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Thank you to Shanti Bhavan and She’s the First for connecting us with Shree and Vaishali.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bhumika Regmi is social media associate at Malala Fund. She loves dogs and plans on naming her future puppy Mochi, after the Japanese treat.